March 5, 2009

Of education and strawmen

Now this is funny.

Stephen Downes, in a post arguing that Joanne Jacobs has erected strawmen in her post on the 21st Century Skills debate, erects a few of his own.

Each of these three formulations serves to misrepresents actual positions held by educators that do stand up to scrutiny: that knowledge depends on critical thinking skills (not the other way around), that teachers address multiple cognitive needs (not just drill and recall), and that self-direction does not entail content-free learning.

Let's take each in turn.

Knowledge depends on critical thinking skills (not the other way around)

This is a demonstrably false statement.

Knowledge is defined as (i) expertise, and skills acquired by a person through experience or education; the theoretical or practical understanding of a subject, (ii) what is known in a particular field or in total; facts and information or (iii) awareness or familiarity gained by experience of a fact or situation.

Since knowledge includes facts and information, and facts and information can be acquired by rote (albeit inefficiently), knowledge does not depend on critical thinking skills.

The converse (Critical thinking skills depend on knowledge) is, however, true. You can't think critically unless you've learned a procedure for thinking critically (such as the critical reading procedure I laid out) without the knowledge of the steps (this would be information and facts) that make up that procedure.

That teachers address multiple cognitive needs (not just drill and recall)

This would be a strawman. Does anyone actually think that teachers should only address drill and recall?

That self-direction does not entail content-free learning

Another strawman. Does anyone actually believe that self-direction entails content-free learning? I suppose there is a risk that the self-chosen direction might not entail enough content, but this gets dangerously close to making a point that is educationally relevant.


Anonymous said...

This post is dead-on and it really does demonstrate how frustrating the argument is with a number of the advocates of "21st century skills" or any other educational buzzword.

In my experience the "Differentiated Learning" crowd does the same thing. "Drill and kill is dead! Be the guide on the side... not the sage on the sage" and other inane arguments do little to highlight the debate and accuse anyone that doesn't agree with any particular educational philosophy as "anti-learning" or against children.

I would argue, though, that the last one isn't THAT much of a straw man. I have seen a lot of poor projects aimed at critical thinking that make no attempt to help kids gain domain knowledge that make their critical thinking projects in any way valid...

Anonymous said...

Everyone absorbs or learn things differently. I guess it would be wise if each of us respects what other people believes.
I admit it is funny the 21st century skills contradicts the belief of others, but we are all unique and we believe in things differently. That makes our life exciting.

Anonymous said...

PL 21 says: "That makes our lives exciting."

Well, "exciting" is not the word I'd use. I hear what you're saying. but this isn't a matter of "different beliefs," and "anything goes." It's a matter of educating the Nation's young people. When "authorities" generate vapid statements purporting to provide guidelinse, that's cause for alarm, not just "never mind."

Incidentally everyone learns somewhat different things, but we all pretty much learn those things in the same way.

NMahoney said...

PowerLearning: it would be wise if each of us respects what other people believes..

So if I believe all Jews are evil and should be exterminated, you and everyone else would be wise to respect that belief?

Evidence and logic capture my respect. Sloppy thinking is not exciting, it's annoying.

Tracy W said...

Everyone absorbs or learn things differently.

Really? So for example, while I learnt to ride a bike by practising riding a bike, there are people who learnt to ride a bike by lounging around in coffee shops?

Or do you mean that while some people store memories in their brain, others store them in their big toe, or in their hair, or underneath the mattress?

Do you have any evidence for this remarkable claim? Do you even know what you mean by it?

I guess it would be wise if each of us respects what other people believes.

Wouldn't it be even wiser if each of us tries to base what we believe on evidence? And when making astounding claims like "Everyone absorbs or learn things differently" actually provides some evidence as to why anyone else should believe it?

Plus, why should I respect what you believe? You haven't made any attempt to try to convince anyone that your beliefs have anything to do with reality.